Do All Ticks Carry Lyme Disease?

June 16, 2020

Clinical Contributors to this Story

Julia Piwoz, M.D. contributes to topics such as Pediatric Infectious Diseases.

If you spot a tick on yourself after hiking in the woods, you may be concerned about getting Lyme disease. Fortunately, not all ticks carry Lyme disease, and the ones that do may not transmit disease-causing bacteria before you discover and remove them.

“It depends on the type of tick, where the tick is from, how old it is and even whether the tick is male or female!” says Julia Piwoz, M.D., chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital.

Which Types of Ticks Carry Lyme Disease?

Ixodes ticks are the only type of ticks that transmit Lyme Disease. Two Ixodes tick species in the United States carry Lyme disease, which may cause joint pain, fatigue and neurological problems if left untreated.

The (Ixodes scapularis), also known as the deer tick, spreads the disease throughout the northeast and, to a lesser extent, northern parts of the Midwest.

adult tick (Ixodes scapularis) on grass – iStock

The western blacklegged tick (Ixodes pacificus) is responsible for spreading Lyme disease in the Pacific Northwest, but fewer people become infected there than in Eastern parts of the country.

This photograph depicted a dorsal view of an adult female western blacklegged tick, Ixodes pacificus – CDC

Deer ticks are commonly found in New Jersey, but so are other ticks that don’t carry Lyme disease, like American dog ticks, Lone Star ticks and Asian longhorned ticks. (They may carry other diseases, though, so it’s important to remove any ticks that you find.)

After you find a tick, try identifying its species with an online tick identification chart, like the one from the University of Rhode Island’s TickEncounter Resource Center.

How Ticks Spread Lyme Disease

”Ticks have a life cycle with three stages where they ‘quest’ for food and have the opportunity to acquire infections,” says Dr. Piwoz.

They survive by attaching to animals or humans and feeding on their blood. If a deer tick attaches to a mouse, deer or other animal that’s carrying the bacteria which causes Lyme disease, the tick becomes infected. It may then spread the disease if it later attaches to you.

Here are some other fast facts about ticks and Lyme disease:

  • Nymph ticks (those at a younger stage of life) are very small and are usually out in early spring through late fall. They are often hard to find until they’ve been attached for a while and are most likely to transmit Lyme disease.
  • Adult ticks are out later in the season and are more likely to be noticed because of their dark color and larger size.
  • Male adult deer ticks don’t feed or stay attached long enough to transmit Lyme Disease so only the female adult will transmit.

When To Be Concerned About Lyme Disease From a Tick Bite

“In order for a tick to transmit Lyme disease, it generally needs come from a high-risk area and be attached to your body for more than 36 hours,” says Dr. Piwoz.

If you’ve found a tick that’s stayed on for more than 36 hours, and you seek medical attention within 72 hours, you may be prescribed a single dose of a prophylactic antibiotic to help prevent the infection.

Sometimes, ticks spend several hours on people before attaching themselves. If you discover and remove a deer tick within 24 hours, it reduces your risk of becoming infected with Lyme disease.

How To Check for Ticks

Experts recommend checking for ticks after you spend time outdoors, especially if you’ve walked in the woods or through tall grass. They’re easy to spot on arms, legs, backs and chests, but they may hide in trickier-to-locate places, including:

  • the armpits
  • the belly button
  • the groin
  • behind, or inside, the ears
  • the scalp, where hair may obscure them

How To Lower Your Risk Of Tick Bites

Spending time outdoors may increase your exposure to ticks, but you can take steps to reduce your risk of getting bitten. Keeping as much skin covered as possible when you’re outside lowers your risk, because a tick can’t attach to you through fabric. Wear long sleeves and long pants, and tuck your pant legs into your socks. Dressing in light colors makes it easier to spot dark ticks on your clothing. These strategies may also help:

  • wearing a wide-brimmed hat
  • using tick repellent, such as DEET
  • staying on hiking trails and not walking through tall brush
  • taking a shower after spending time outdoors
  • treating clothing and gear with an insect repellent solution like permethrin
  • washing clothes in hot water and drying in dryer after being outdoors
  • check your pets for ticks – they can hitch a ride on them and come inside your home

What To Do If You Find An Attached Tick

When a tick bites, it inserts its barbed feeding tube into your skin, which makes it harder to remove. Using tweezers, grasp the tick as close to your skin as possible and slowly lift it directly upwards, without twisting. If parts of the head remain behind, remove them separately. Clean the skin with an antiseptic. If you remove a deer tick at least 36 to 48 hours after spending time outside, call your doctor for advice.

“Ticks and mosquitoes are pests but they need not ruin your summer plans,” says Dr. Piwoz. “All you need is a little planning to have a great summer!”

Next Steps & Resources

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.